“We like all the things we assume have no limits, and therefore, no end,” the late great Italian philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco told Der Spiegel in 2009(1) when asked why humans are on the perpetual pursuit of completion. The interview’s subject of listmaking, Eco continued, is a way of evading the contemplation of death: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” Enraptured by what he termed “vertigo of lists” and the “poetics of catalogue,” the Italian polymath looked at life through a distinctly categorical lens, identifying lists everywhere from the descriptions in Homer’s Iliad to the assemblages of objects in Dutch Baroque vanitas paintings.
To Eco, whose long bibliography includes the hefty illustrated tome The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay – compiled to accompany an exhibition on the subject he curated during his 2009 residency at the Louvre – lists were “the origin of culture;” fundamental to the Western canons of art and literature. “What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible,” he proclaimed, “and how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible?”(2) List-making, to him, involved nothing less than grappling with fabric of existence.
In his obsession with the format, Eco is admittedly on the far end of the spectrum of list-loving luminaries. Yet he is hardly alone in his devotion. The list’s inherent tension – between order and boundlessness, framework and free-form, prescription and possibility – gives the format both its universal appeal and its unifying function: as a common canvas for both planners and dreamers, high-powered productivity hackers and bohemian romantics, rule keepers and rule benders.
This inherent duality of daily pragmatism (noting, remembering, getting done) versus future escapism (wishing, planning, fantasising) is embedded in the term’s etymology. While the word first emerged during the Age of Chaucer to refer to the border of knights’ jousting fields – signalling a framework for combat – it also shares roots with the High German Lust, denoting longing and desire. (3) By 1599, the term had made its way into the Shakespearean universe: in Hamlet, an approaching band of soldiers is described as “list of lawless resolutes”; (4) a usage foreshadowing the term’s contemporary synonymity with catalogues, indices, and records.
In its quiet ubiquity, the list runs the full gamut of daily life, from minutiae to magical thinking, the prosaic to the poetic. Hurried grocery lists scrawled on the backs of receipts, the daily humdrum of boxes to be checked, lofty resolutions repurposed from the previous year, wishful catalogues of far-flung escapes compiled on a rainy Sunday – in short, any group of ideas, objects, places, people susceptible to categorisation, itemisation, or rank.
This set of qualities that have long sealed the list’s status as the darling of pop culture: recall, if you will, the tacky Hot/Not trend radars and Best/Worst-dressed lists of tabloids, the cataclysmic countdown of Billboard’s Hot 100, the odd appeal of IMDb’s “Top 250”, the sultry gaze of People Magazine’s “World’s Most Beautiful”, and the
respectability (and occasional questionability) of New York Times Best Sellers – to name just a few.
The stakes heighten when algorithms come into play (after all, Google Search is the ultimate list of lists, the index of the world’s information), giving rise to such derivative versions as the “listicle”, primed for high performance in the internet’s attention economy. As with the maelstrom of social media, the list appears on high rotation in the timepressed, productivity-obsessed domains of corporate culture and finance, from stock market indices and Warren Buffett’s various “Investment Criteria Checklists” to the Fortune 500 and Forbes’ “30 Under 30”.
The list goes on. But these countless manifestations only go to show the format’s ubiquity in contemporary culture – a manifestation of the Western world’s subliminal impulse to categorise; (5) a drive which is not without its dangers: the construction of false and harmful hierarchies; troubling connotations (take, for example, the racist origins of the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” (6); exclusion and reduction; pigeonholing, the omission of nuance and connection; and ultimately the reality that despite our best efforts, a list can never paint a full picture; it must and always will remain incomplete.
It was this precisely this tension – our attempt to reconcile our own mortality with the infinite – that Eco was referring to when he spoke of the list in existential terms; a claim that posits the list not as a noun (some fixed tally of truth; a scathing stratification system; a definitive order of the nature of things) but rather as a verb (a regular practice, a framework for our thoughts, a tool for self-knowledge and understanding). When untethered from the clamour for online ad revenue and decoupled from capitalist productivity imperatives, the list can be liberated into the realm of creative expression: of personal ritual and idea development, exchange and community building, education and inspiration.
For a host of revered writers, thinkers, and artists throughout history, the list has been central to their way of being in the world, both for purposes of introspection and outward connection, as a mode of enquiry for self-knowledge; a set of guidelines for decision-making; an outlet for streams of consciousness; a container for capturing all that washed up on the shores of their mind; a framework for bridging the personal with the
In respect of the latter, lists find their place within the original context of self-care, established as a radical political act by one of the foundational voices of Black queer feminism: the writer, poet, and activist Audre Lorde. “Caring for myself is not self indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” she wrote in ‘A Burst of Light and Other Essays’ (7) after receiving her second cancer diagnosis; the statement would become a mantra within intersecting circles of activism– as has poet and editor Divya Victor’s adaptation of a passage from Lorde’s Cancer Journals into “The Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself”. (8) Four guiding prompts, prescient in their acuity, facilitate the “transformation of silence into language and action”:
1. What are the words you do not have yet? [Or, “for what do you not have words, yet?”]
2. What do you need to say? [List as many things as necessary]
3. “What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” [List as many as necessary today. Then write a new list tomorrow. And the day after.]
4. If we have been “socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and
definition”, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” (9) [So, answer this today. And every day.] (10)
Finding words – whether for the monumental task of claiming space within structures of systemic oppression – or for the more generalised exercise of creative experimentation (of course, for so many, these processes are inextricable) strikes at the heart of lists’ power: through the low-stakes task of free association, a regular practice of list-making can serve as a tool for fortifying the spirit, forging the trajectory of a life, even influencing future generations.
Born three years before Lorde, the conceptual artist and avant-garde educator John Baldessari employed the list format in various facets of his pioneering practice. “I’ve often thought of myself as a frustrated writer,” Baldessari once admitted. “I consider a word and an image of equal weight, and a lot of my work comes out of that kind of thinking.” Work like his 1970 list of 109 offbeat Class Assignments (Optional) designed for his CalArts Graduate Program in Fine Arts. Suggestions include: “17. Cooking art: Invent recipes. They are organizations of parts, aren’t they? / 20. A sensory deprivation piece. A sensory overload piece. / 53. Touch pieces. / 99. Art that requires the rental of a service rather than an object.” (11)
It wasn’t just students who received Baldessari’s humour-tinged wisdom, however: viewers and art critics received a cheeky nudge in Terms Most Useful in Describing Creative Works of Art (1966-1968); tabled in three neat rows in acrylic on canvas, while Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966-1968) – a list which the artist did not himself write nor paint but instead borrowed from an art trade publication, time – offered a formula for commercial success his contemporaries while making a case for context over content.
Even if not intended as works in themselves, lists have played a fundamental role behind the scenes of many a creative practice, serving as a sort of conceptual scaffolding often intimately connected with journaling. As Susan Sontag put it with her trademark lustre in a journal entry dated 9th August, 1967: I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” […] Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. (12)
Some of those interests appear in another entry nearly 10 years on, in a deliciously random entry of 21st February 1977 that oscillates between likes (“Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies [..] staying in hotels, paper clips, leather belts, making lists…”) and dislikes (“Television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games…”) (13) The same year, the French theorist, philosopher and critic Roland Barthes – whom Sontag admired greatly
– entitled “J’aime, je n’aime pas” (I like, I don’t like) had been published. Barthes’s j’aime column included the wonderfully specific “smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a “nose” make such a perfume) […] Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France,” while dislikes featured “white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums […] fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, etc.” (14) It bears noting that coarse salt and flat pillows make an appearance on both Sontag’s and Barthes’s lists – it appears the counterparts had more in common than their formidable intellects.
Two years later, another list that has since reached cult status emerged in Joan Didion’s 1979 The White Album: the packing list that was “taped inside [her] closet door in Hollywood” during a period of extensive travel as reporter at large. The list’s preface is just as revealing its contents (“To carry: a mohair throw, a typewriter, two legal pads and pens, files, a house key”): “It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative.” (15)
The allure of reading these collections of quotidian thoughts – the seemingly trivial – goes beyond our natural curiosity for the inner workings of the minds of our cultural protagonists. It reminds us that no thought, whim, or fragment of our daily lives is too small to count. The subtleties of our own experiences that catch our attention, linger on our minds, and attest to who we are in that moment can too amount to something, if only we choose to note them, to take them seriously, and to give them space, respect, and time.
Beyond its function as a time capsule of the past – saving, remembering, reflecting – and flag-bearer for the future – dreaming, resolving, striving – it’s the role lists play in the enhancing our experience of the present that most intrigues Leigh Patterson, writer, creative director, and founder of Moon Lists.16 Under the banner “Questions and Rituals for Self-Reflection,” the notebook quickly gained a spirited following of its own, drawing together an international community of creative minds and heralding a revival of the timehonoured practice of journaling, as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way did two decades earlier.
Broadly formatted around the phases of the moon, and playfully incorporating references from ‘70s astrology, art, and architecture, Moon Lists offers prompts, questions, and inspirations to create a space for self-reflection, noting current moods and inspirations – “all centred around using the form of list making as a device to see the present in different ways,” Patterson says. “That form of pure observation is so inspiring to me. It’s a real muscle – once you start thinking in that way, you’re living in this more heightened state of just soaking up what is around you, and I think you’re more prone to noticing which details are standing out.”
The idea behind Moon Lists itself emerged from a considered observation, gleaned from the pages of National Geographic in an interview with the photographer Sam Abell – now in his seventies – who had mentioned that every full moon, he and his wife would ask each other the same set of questions, in an exercise of reflection on the past month. “I thought that was such an interesting premise, so I tracked him down and wrote him a letter – I was curious what his questions were,” Patterson explains. “He wrote back one year later, and we became pen pals.”
Having received Abell’s blessing to repurpose his ritual – original questions included “What’s the best story that you heard last month? or “When did you spend time at the friend?” – Patterson established Moon Lists first as her own interview series as her own evolution of Abell’s questions before the project gained a momentum of its own. “I got a lot of requests asking, ‘Can you just send me the list so I can incorporate them into my own life?’”
“Maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo,” she continues with a laugh when asked of listmaking’s role in her own life, “but I have like having very organised ways to unpack a big project. My approach has always been, ‘Let’s break this down into its simplest components in order to not feel overwhelmed.’” Tasks that loom as monumental melt into
manageability when divided into simple steps, or what she neatly terms “guardrails for specificity,” offering a counterstrategy to overload of all varieties.
“The list requires you to think in short-term detail for which broad strokes aren’t good enough,” Patterson muses, before encapsulating the format’s eternal appeal. “If you set up boundaries to think within, those limitations create more expansive thought than if you say, “Sky’s the limit.” Perhaps, contrary to Eco’s grandiose claim, our aim in all this noting, gathering, and reflecting is not to fling ourselves into the vast expanse of infinity, but the opposite: an attempt to make sense of life’s immensity within the frameworks that ring true to us, to pursue clarity amid the ceaseless clutter. In its magnitude, this endeavour is no less significant.
1 Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris, “We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die: Interview with Umberto
Eco”, Der Spiegel (11 November 2019). Accessed via <https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/spiegelinterview-
2 As above.
3 “Origin and meaning of List (v 4)”, Online Etymology Dictionary <https://www.etymonline.com/word/list>
4 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, edited by G. R. Hibbard (Oxford University Press, 2008), 1,1,95.
previous year, wishful catalogues of far-flung escapes compiled on a rainy Sunday – in
short, any group of ideas, objects, places, people susceptible to categorisation,
itemisation, or rank.
5 See, for example, American psychoanalyst Dr. Michael Maccoby’s comments in Jane O’Brien, “The Art of
List-Making”, BBC News (3 March 2010) < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8537856.stm>
6 See, for example, Frank Houghton and Sharon Houghton, “”Blacklists” and “whitelists”: a salutary warning
concerning the prevalence of racist language in discussions of predatory publishing.” Journal of the Medical
Library Association: JMLA vol. 106,4 (2018): 527-530. <doi:10.5195/jmla.2018.490>
7 Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (New York: Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1988) 131.
8 Divya Victor, The Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself <https://divyavictor.com/the-audre-lordequestionnaire-
to-oneself/> adapted from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,”
collected in The Cancer Journals. This resource was created by Divya Victor for students of her Creative
Writing courses at Nanyang Technological University in 2016. It is published here with the author’s express
9 This question is borrowed from Naomi Wolf’s Commencement address at Scripps College, “A Woman’s
Place.” (17th May 1992) <http://gos.sbc.edu/w/wolf.html>
10 Above n 8.
11 John Baldessari: Class Assignments (Optional) 1970.
12 Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 edited by
David Rieff (New York: Farrar Strauss, 2012) 219.
13 As above, 418.
14 Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977) 116-117
15 Joan Didion, The White Album (New York: Macmillan, 1990) 34-35.
16 For more on Moon Lists, see <https://moonlists.com>